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Incontinence is the disruption of the signals connecting the nerves in and around the bladder to the brain. For the bladder to function correctly, nerves in your body need to control the right muscles, telling them to contract and when to release in order to allow urine to be eliminated when you choose. This happens when the nerves in the spinal cord send messages from the brain to the bladder and sphincter muscles to control the flow of urine.

The different types of incontinence

  • Stress incontinence: The most common type of incontinence, “stress” incontinence refers to the leakage of urine due to physical pressure on the bladder, during exercise, coughing, sneezing, laughing, lifting heavy objects, or other body movements.
  • Urge incontinence: “Urge incontinence” refers to the inability to hold urine long enough to reach a restroom. It is often found in people who have conditions such as diabetes, stroke, dementia, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis, but may be an indication of other diseases or conditions that would also warrant medical attention.
  • Functional incontinence: When incontinence occurs due to a difficulty reaching a restroom in time, it is referred to as “functional incontinence”, and is usually caused by physical conditions such as arthritis or injury to the hips, legs or feet.
  • Overflow incontinence:  “Overflow incontinence” refers to leakage that occurs when the quantity of urine produced exceeds the bladder's capacity to hold it.

What can cause Incontinence?

While the likelihood of experiencing incontinence increases with age, incontinence is not an inevitable result of getting older. Many of the conditions that lead to incontinence involve disruptions to the system of nerves controlling the bladder, but other possible factors could be physical changes resulting from illness, medications or a surgical procedure. Finally, incontinence can also stem from environmental factors, such as limited mobility, or a lack of awareness.

Learn more about what can cause incontinence and other bladder control problems.

What are the Symptoms of Incontinence?

The expected symptoms of incontinence can include:

  • needing to rush to the restroom and/or losing urine if you don’t get to the restroom in time
  • urinal leakage that prevents activities
  • urinal leakage that began or continued after surgery
  • urinal leakage that causes embarrassment

Beyond the lack of bladder control, incontinence can also be associated with a range of other symptoms, such as:

  • inability to urinate
  • pain related to filling the bladder and/or pain related to urination without a proven bladder infection
  • weakness of the urinary stream with or without the feeling of incomplete bladder emptying
  • increased rate of urination without a proven bladder infection
  • frequent bladder infections

Symptoms of urinary incontinence may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How can Incontinence be treated?

It is important to note that while incontinence is itself a serious condition, it is almost always a symptom of an underlying disorder which must be diagnosed and treated before the incontinence can be completely addressed. Nevertheless, there are a wide variety of treatments available today that can help manage or in some cases even cure incontinence, including:

  • Absorbent Pads or Garments: While not a cure, modern-day pads and garments can be an unobtrusive and effective way to minimize the embarrassment and disruption of incontinence.
  • Urethral Occlusion and Catheters: A range of small medical devices have been developed to capture and route urine into discreetly-hidden containers.
  • Medication: Some forms of incontinence respond well to medication.
  • Behavioral Approaches: Adjustments to daily routine, such as eating, drinking and sleeping habits, can have a substantially help to limit the impact of incontinence.
  • Physical Rehabilitation: Pelvic-floor exercises (i.e. Kegel exercises) and other physical activities can help to strengthen and tone the muscles and other tissues around your bladder that help maintain continence.

Learn more about potential treatments for Incontinence.